Colón, September 7, 1898

Byron had one leg inside his trousers when he was startled by a tap on his back-cabin door.

"Eres despierto? Are you awake in there?"

 "Yes, Miss—‌gimme a second!" He finished pulling on the stiff blue denims, wondering what had prompted the madam out of bed before noon. As he opened the door the damp morning air tingled his bare feet. She looked surprised to see him half-dressed.

"Where are you going so early?"

Her reproachful tone left him off balance. "Don't yuh remember? I told yuh last week. The railway's fixin' to rebuild that old wharf."

A trace of irritation deepened the fresh lines on Estelle Morales' high caramel forehead. "You expect me to remember every little rumor? You should have reminded me. You know I have a lot weighing on my mind these days."

"Sorry," he mumbled, staring at his feet when he saw that she was shivering. The dawn was cool and gray with mist but even as she stood hugging her shoulders in the flimsy nightdress he knew the warmth Estelle was after had nothing to do with the temperature. "I guess I didn't think—"

 

 


Empire, U.S. Canal Zone, November 1906

"So, did you see him?"

Roberson shot his roommate an ugly look and tossed the soggy hat onto its rack without a glance. "Stood out in that pouring rain since five this morning—" he stooped inside the door to haul off his shoes, "two whole hours! Never saw him."

Andrew Tully finished buttoning up his collar and assessed the red tie's complement to his dark-chocolate features. "Don't tell me they canceled the extravaganza!" he said, gazing approvingly at himself in the mirror. "Big Smoke had us jumping like fleas getting things shipshape for weeks."

 "Oh, the show went off all right. You know nothing was gonna stop that lunatic Shanton—‌his lily-white honor-guard rode in first, then came a troop of our West Indian boys followed by some Panamanians dressed like cowpokes. They pranced their horses around doing their fancy moves like they didn't feel the rain. Meanwhile we're all standing in the open getting drenched. I'm fed up and about to leave when there's this great big cheer and I see this huge black carriage come thundering up, making a bee-line for the hotel entrance. The band starts up quick-time, trumpets blaring—‌the color guard stiff-steps up to form an aisle and as they swing the carriage doors open, bam! —‌we all stand there like lightning strike us. Nobody was inside!"

 "What?"

 


The Grand Hotel, Cathedral Plaza, Panama City

Like a specter, he slipped in without a sound. The smoke-filled room, shuttered against the punishing heat and sunlight, held the air of decay—‌not of matter but of high moral causes.

"Hullo, Henri ..."

The bowed head jerked up from the desk then froze like a question. "Est-ce possible—?"

"Yes, it is. The Prodigal returns."

 The graying Frenchman sat with a wondering look, that mix of joy and disbelief which accompanies a fond yet half-forgotten wish.

"How long has it been—‌over a decade?"

"C'est incroyable! Are you flesh and blood?"

"Aren't we all, Henri? No, your eyes aren't playing you tricks. I need to speak with you."

Thomas Judah shut the door and stepped further  inside. He grimaced as his eyes adjusted to the darkened chamber, surprised by the chintzy unmatched furniture, the tattered carpet, the peeling wallpaper speckled with mildew. He had expected to find the managing engineer for La Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama ensconced in an elegant suite commanding an industrious staff.

 

 


Carnaval

"You speak our language with very little accent. That's quite unusual—"

The sensuous voice slipped in through the chatter and smoke like a familiar caress. He turned to peruse the slow-moving crowd but got no hint as to who was enticing him so seductively in English. Gobbling his half-eaten shrimp, he bade farewell to his flirtatious vendor who puckered her lips and ordered him to come back later for some of her hot carimañolas.

A quick scan of the human hive swarming all the succulent trays spread before the row of amber-light stalls told him the odds of finding his mystery admirer were probably slim. One thing on his side was that the night revelers were now ambling in aimless packs. The other was his utter confidence that he would know that voice in any language, within an instant.

He sidestepped a loud-talking bunch drunkenly scratching their groins and clowning, then smiled as he glimpsed three wet-eared Lotharios huddled with their jester-capped heads bowed low, arguing how best to steal a kiss from an unsuspecting girl. After roaming the crowded stalls in vain, he decided to see if his enchantress was among the flock of painted ladies preening on stage in their long ruffled skirts showing off the same impressive needlework he'd seen on the old man's colorful shirt. To his dismay, as he neared the platform by the gazebo's brass band, he knew from one look that those faces were far too mellowed to belong to his seductress. Still, there were many more colorful ladies sashaying to the band's waltzing music. Any of them might be the match for his intriguing voice. What made him so sure he could spot the right one? Perhaps he was simply being a fool and she had been talking to someone else.

"¿El dar para arriba tan pronto? Don't you want to try and find me, Señor Antillano?"

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